Wednesday 8 August 2012

Tristan and Isolde at Bayreuth, or I Don't Care What The Text Says, Ignore Each Other!

The director of this production, Christopher Marthaler, makes his Edinburgh International Festival debut next week. According to the Festival, Marthaler is one of Europe's leading and most influential directors whose work has rarely been seen in Britain. All I can say is that if this production is a fair sample of that work then the less we see of him in UK houses the better.

Let us start however with the positives. Musically this was a very fine performance. Indeed after Act One I frequently closed my eyes and this improved the evening considerably. This was my first experience of Bayreuth. It is very clear that there is a distinct difference musically in terms of how Wagner sounds here as against other houses. Most notably the balance between voices and orchestra is rarely a problem – in fact just occasionally I felt the voices were over-favoured. The acoustic also gives a wonderful clarity to the orchestral sound – I felt I heard individual lines in the orchestra more clearly than I recall doing in other houses.

The stand out singer was Irene Theorin's Isolde. I was previously due to hear her in the ENO revival of Parsifal from which she withdrew, but apart from that if she has sung in the UK I have managed to miss her. I will be keeping a close eye out for her from now on, and UK houses should be rushing to engage her. She has a marvellous Wagner voice – warm, rich, ringingly powerful but not losing it in the quieter passages and tireless. She is also an excellent actress and did her level best to transcend the follies of the production.

She was partnered by Robert Dean Smith as Tristan. I think this was also the first time I'd heard him live and I'm afraid he is not in the same class. For me he was overall yet another Tristan who just doesn't have the vocal strength to sustain the part. Too often the voice was strained, unpleasant to listen to, struggling to come over the orchestra. In fairness he does sustain it at pretty much the same level from start to finish (Act Three was a bit of an ordeal in other respects but not because of his singing) but I do long for the day when I'll hear a Tristan who can sustain the part with more vocal beauty and richness. Dean Smith's other problem is his serious limitations as an actor – he was, at least here, a classic case of the type Flanders and Swann described as “turn, pace, wait for the pause.” There was almost no chemistry between him and Theorin, although this may partially have been the consequence of the issues in the production I'll come onto in a moment. He was also not helped by some ridiculous costuming by Anna Viebrock which had him looking like a man who has got lost on the way to his yacht club in Act Two and which totally failed to suggest a man with a mortal wound in Act Three.

Among the rest of the cast the standout was Kwangchul Youn's King Marke. The production does everything it can to render his character meaningless and Youn deserves enormous credit for singing his heart out despite this – his was another rich full voice which filled the Festspielhaus. Michelle Breedt (Brangane), Jukka Rasilainen (Kurwenal) and Ralk Lukas (Melot) all sang creditably if not in the outstanding class of Youn and Theorin. The singers were well partnered in the pit by the Festival Orchestra under Peter Schneider, a conductor new to me. During the first act things seemed to drag, but in the second act when I closed my eyes for much of the time I was able to appreciate that there was a great deal of excitement and drive coming from the pit and to conclude that both in Act One and elsewhere the production was doing its best to negate this.

And so we now turn to Marthaler's production. The first big issue is the design which is one of the most tiring things to look at for three acts which I've seen for a long time – and not in a way positive to the emotional punch of the opera. The first act is set in a comparatively innocuous wood panelled lounge which looked to me like something from a Titanic-style ocean liner gone to seed. We never, mind you, see the sea, and there is a life-ring placed inside this lounge which seems likely to be of precious little use to anyone. The set then rises so that by Act Three there has been added two further sets of walls beneath those of Act One – yellow ones with lots of light switches for Act Two and plasterboard building site ones for Act Three. I daresay this rising or descending was intended to symbolise something but I was quite unable to detect what that was.

The setting however is not the major failure of the production – that lies in the movement, or lack of it. Hints of the madness to come appear in Act One with lots of rather pointless tipping over of the large number of deck chairs strewn about the set, but it is with Act Two that the directorial perverseness really kicks into high gear. Marthaler follows other directors of this opera I have seen in taking the view that despite the passion of the extended love duet between Tristan and Isolde this in fact means that they should touch as little as possible. They have a brief embrace when Tristan first arrives and there is a rather bizarre interlude in the middle of the duet when Tristan removes Isolde's gloves and apart from that they spend most of the time singing to the audience. I have now seen this kind of approach attempted in three productions of this opera and it has never worked. Directors should really give it up. It generated especial problems at the conclusion of the act when Marke and Melot arrive. Marthaler had them watching from the back of the stage for some minutes before their interruption. During this time Tristan and Isolde were hardly looking or touching each other so it was rather difficult to perceive anything in their demeanor deserving of Marke's bitterness. Things went further downhill thereafter as Marthaler extended his no interaction policy to the new arrivals – god forbid anybody on stage direct any of their remarks to anybody else. Singers and pit were giving their all, the staging was striving to drain all meaning and emotion out of the narrative.

In Act Three I found it increasingly difficult to ignore the bizarre behaviour on stage. There was the arrival of the flourescent lighting tubes which had appeared as stars or perhaps sails in Act One, then became the signal for the lovers meeting in Act Two, as wall decorations, and the transformation of the shepherd into some kind of light fixtures salesman. Then there was the strangely aged Kurwenal who seemed incapable of movement other than a shuffle and midway through the act inaugurated the new Olympic Event of the Kurwenal Shuffle Five Times Around Tristan's Bed. As no one else had similarly aged it was frankly rather baffling. Finally there was the infuriating conclusion where Marthaler took his no interaction policy to further extremes. Isolde dithered inexplicably upstage rather than rushing to Tristan's side on her entrance, everybody else delivered their lines to the audience before turning and walking slowly away to face the wall, and if you didn't understand the German or hadn't remembered the details of the plot you would not have realised that both Kurwenal and Melot ended up dead.

I must acknowledge one caveat about all of the above. Bayreuth has no surtitles at all – unlike Deutsche Oper you do not get the German text. My German is not good enough to comprehend much of the text without the written aid. It is therefore possible that this production might make more sense if one knew what was being sung at each point as would be the case in London, or if one had the written German to go on as would be the case in other German houses.

However, there was no textual assistance, and thus this was not a pleasing first encounter with Christopher Marthaler's work. I await his Edinburgh Festival debut next week with some unease. Meanwhile my Bayreuth experience continues tonight with Lohengrin which judging by the snippet of the production I've seen via You-Tube could well be another frustrating evening scenically. A report will follow.

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